Dialogue and Drama: Elements of Greek Tragedy in the Fourth Gospel

By Sylva, Dennis | Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Dialogue and Drama: Elements of Greek Tragedy in the Fourth Gospel


Sylva, Dennis, Journal of Biblical Literature


(ProQuest Information and Learning: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

Dialogue and Drama: Elements of Greek Tragedy in the Fourth Gospel, by Jo-Ann Brant. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004. Pp. 320. $19.95 (paper). ISBN 1565639073.

The purpose of this book is to explore the relationship of the Fourth Gospel (FG) to Greek tragedy (GT). It is not intertextual analysis that Brant undertakes, but rather the more generic study of the influences that the Greek tragedians may have exerted on the Gospel of John. Brant's overarching perspective is that in many ways the form of the FG is a performance text. Theatrical criticism, particularly of the structuralist variety, provides the perspective and tools with which the text is studied. Four chapters examine how Greek tragedy can enlighten the FG's dramatic structure (ch. 1), speeches (ch. 2), characterization (ch. 3), and distinctive portrayal of Jesus's death (ch. 4). As for how the FG could have knowledge of these tragedies when they appear to no longer have been performed publicly in the first century C.E., Brant notes that educational training in Greek was heavily influenced by past classics. Quintilian ranked the great tragedians with Homer as models to be studied, claims Brant. Quintilian appears to place, however, the comédie poets of Aristophanes, Eupolis, and Cratinus as second to Homer in Attic style (lnst. 10.1.65). But there is no need to cavil because Quintilian also holds up the three great tragedians as exemplars (10.1.67). Moreover, I note that another justification for this type of investigation comes from Dio Chrysostom, who placed the works of Euripides on par with those of Homer and Menander for the training of public speakers (Die. exercit. 6-8).

Under the rubric of "Dramatic Structure," Brant proposes nine areas of similarity between the FG and the GT. The first two of them concern prologues and epilogues. Although not formally similar, the prologues in each are distinct from the start of the narrative and provide perspective, not shared by the characters, that allows the audience to jump into the story in medias res. Brant also argues that both Euripides and the fourth evangelist (FE) have contrapuntal imagery in their prologues, which sets up the tension in the body of their works, and that the first person plural pronouns in John 1:14 draws the audience into the performance of the Gospel. She provides but two examples of comparable devices to pull spectators into the tragedies, and only one of them, from Euripides' Alcestis, appears to unambiguously do so. As for the epilogues, in both the GT and the FG they encourage the reader's affirmation of the events that have preceded them.

The third through sixth areas of dramatic structure which Brant compares are the settings, the entrances and exits of characters, the transitions between episodes, and the unity of composition. Brant contends that the FE is more attentive to the spatiotemporal matrix of the episodes than are the Synoptics, and that this attention is comparable to the careful location of the episodes by the tragedians. The appearance of characters in the FG is also considered by Brant to be more purposeful than in the Synoptics and more in correspondence with the way characters appear in the tragedies. Scenes are often demarcated by the appearances of characters whose ingresses and egresses have dramatic significance. Some transitions in the FG are said to resemble the choral ode (...) in tragedies by apprising readers of the feelings and beliefs of characters. The concern for the unity of composition found in the tragedies is said to be marked in the FG by (1) creating suspense by frequent references to Jesus's death (which, I note, has an analogue in the references to Jerusalem in the Lukan travel section); (2) a plot line with climax and closure; and (3) a logical set of movements within the plot.

Peripeteia, anagnorisis, and pathos constitute the final three foci of this chapter. …

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